Welcome to Flashback Friday: Tales From The Log, a final-season tribute to Shea Stadium as viewed primarily through the prism of what I have seen there for myself, namely 392 regular-season and 13 postseason games to date. The Log records the numbers. The Tales tell the stories.
10/7/01 Su Montreal 10-9 Rusch 9 134-101 L 5-0
None of us ever wants baseball season to end. But once in a while, we don’t protest too much.
Did you want the dismal 2003 season to endure? Did you want 1993’s 59-103 to blossom into 61-114? Did you want to watch Richie Hebner not pick up grounders as the 1979 Mets dropped a Thanksgiving Day doubleheader to the Cardinals? The baseball season knows itself better than we do. It knows it has to end.
Sometimes it can’t end soon enough. At least once, to my thinking, it overstayed its welcome.
We all remember September 21, 2001, the first baseball game back in New York, Mike Piazza’s homer off Steve Karsay, the breathtaking wonder of it all. September 21, 2001 resonates so that it earned a place among the ten finalists in the Greatest Moments at Shea balloting, the only non-Beatle, non-playoff year event so chosen. SNY has reaired the game about fifty times. The Mets sent their season ticketholders a special VHS highlight reel.
I’ve always agreed with the consensus that it was a singular episode, but the real comeback of baseball and New York and normality in my view was two days later, the horrific eleven-inning loss to the Braves that served as a Jeff Gillooly blow to the Nancy Kerrigan knee of our unlikely division quest. 9/21/01 was about faith and unity and ceremony and, because Mike Piazza was involved, uplift. 9/23/01 was baseball not like it oughta be, but baseball and life the way it is. It was the first time since September 9 that I viewed the result of a baseball game as the most important thing in the world. If I had stepped back from it, of course it wouldn’t have rated.
But that’s the point.
When Armando Benitez surrendered a two-out, two run homer to Brian Jordan to reduce the Mets’ ninth-inning lead from 4-1 to 4-3; when Armando walked Dave Martinez and gave up singles to Andruw Jones and B.J. Surhoff to let it be tied 4-4; when Jordan homered off Jerrod Riggan in the eleventh; when the Mets went down meekly to John Smoltz to end it Braves 5 Mets 4 with the Mets backsliding instead of surging, 4½ back instead of 2½ back, mundane instead of miraculous…when all that happened, I was so goddamn pissed off.
And though I didn’t recognize it as such when I was cursing out some wholly innocent kid in a Braves cap on the stairs to the 7 (horrifying my wife in the process), it was the best goddamn feeling I could have had that September. Friday night and Piazza? Surreal. Spectacular. Stirring. Whatever. It wasn’t baseball. It wasn’t the 2001 Mets. It wasn’t a pennant race even if it drew the Mets close enough to the Braves so that you could actually take seriously the chances of a team that had once been 14 under and 13½ out. It may have been cathartic and it may have been what a lot of people needed at that moment, but on Friday night, I couldn’t buy a baseball game meant very much in the scheme of things. Sunday afternoon, consumed by the customary frustration and angst and disappointment of the Mets losing to the Braves, is when I knew life would go on.
Did that make me shallow? Did that prove that I was incapable of committing my attention to an honest-to-badness tragedy on the other side of town because my stupid baseball team lost a stupid baseball game? Did that show I was never going to full-on grow up? Maybe. But it was the life I had known and it was the part of life that was blessedly back.
Maybe you remember September 23 in concert with September 21. Maybe you remember the Mets rallied for one more daunting charge up the N.L. East hill in the week that followed. They flew to Montreal and swept a trio at Olympic Stadium. Perhaps you remember that it wasn’t so preposterous that the Mets, now persevering (25-6) after long slumbering (54-68), could lunge toward a division title in the wake of New York’s worst moment, that maybe Brian Jordan hadn’t debilitated us, only made us stronger. Perhaps you remember we went into Atlanta three games down for a three-game series and if ever our team was going to do us materially as well as spiritually proud, this was going to be it. They were going to don their FDNY caps and their NYPD caps and their PAPD caps and every cap representing everybody who gave of themselves and they were going to do it for everybody. They were going to beat the Braves at Turner Field.
Maybe you remember they didn’t. They lost Friday night, but still had Saturday. They led Saturday but they opted to replay the previous Sunday. Up four runs in the ninth this time, bone-tired Armando Benitez — a team-record 42 saves to his credit to date in 2001 — was whacked again. Got two outs, gave up two runs, left two runners on as he exited in favor of John Franco. Johnny walked Wes Helms and, having loaded the bases for Brian Jordan, gave up a walkoff grand slam to the previous week’s executioner. Benitez and Franco, a dozen seasons of Met closing between them, slammed shut the door on our seemingly possible dream.
Do you remember what happened next? Probably not. The season, sacked twice by the former defensive back for the Atlanta Falcons, went into overtime. The Mets had six home games remaining after salvaging their finale at the Ted (Armando’s 43rd and least meaningful save). But the season was supposed to be over by then, Sunday September 30. Not the case in 2001. The events of September 11 postponed a week’s worth of contests. Baseball pushed back everything by one week, meaning the regular season wouldn’t end until October 7.
The Mets would play well into October whether they deserved to or not. I was there for almost all of it.
This was no mission, no statement on my part. It was just the way the chips landed, with various tickets and various plans coming home to roost. I was absent for the Monday night game that reduced the Mets’ (if you’ll excuse the expression) tragic number to two. So was almost everybody else in New York. Paid attendance: 6,315. As everything the last week was officially a whole new ballgame, advance tickets sold for games that were supposed to take place in September didn’t count. These were real turnstile figures. Only real fans were showing up the rest of the way.
Like me on Tuesday night, the 10-1 shellacking by Pittsburgh that officially eliminated the defending 2000 National League champions from any hope of postseason play. The Mets were still doing right by New York, still wearing the first responder caps, still giving over as much psychic space as could be allowed to matters bigger than baseball. “God Bless America” had completely trumped “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”. The Tuesday anthem singer plunged an extra verse into “The Star-Spangled Banner,” offering up the “oh the butcher and the baker and the people down the street” parts you never, ever hear at the ol’ ball game.
On the shore dimly seen
Through the mists of the deep
Where the foe’s haughty host
In dread silence reposes
Paid attendance: 8,058.
Like me on Wednesday night — a 2:12 Steve Trachsel two-hit shutout, with only 6,627 souls available to confirm that such an animal once roamed the earth.
Like me on Friday night — the final entry in Jason’s, Emily’s and my Tuesday/Friday pack, an 8-6 loss to Montreal memorable to me for three distinct reasons:
1) Alex Escobar homered twice. Obviously he was going to be huge for us.
2) Jason Phillips notched his first Major League hit, a milestone the scoreboard immediately credited to Vance Wilson.
3) Jace mocked me for having purchased, on the eve of his retirement from the Orioles, a “Cal Ripken fetish magazine”.
Paid attendance: 10,821.
Like me on Saturday night, a date with my dutiful friend Joe and the omnipresent Kevin Appier. Joe and his relentless scorebook had been a recurring Saturday feature for me in some form or fashion since 1990. Appier…the majority of his Shea Stadium tenure played out in front of me in 2001. I saw nine of his sixteen home starts. This was number nine. This was his best work: eight innings, six hits, eleven strikeouts, a 4-0 win. As a reward, he would be traded for Mo Vaughn.
The big news, however, was Lenny Harris. He lined a Carl Pavano offering past Geoff Blum and into center. It was Lenny’s 151st career pinch-hit, topping Manny Mota and unleashing the only euphoria we’d be feeling this fall. Tina Turner’s The Best played in a loop as Lenny’s teammates — led by his primary patron Piazza — pounded him on the back and told him no one was better at coming off the bench and singling.
2001 Mets: Third place.
Lenny Harris: Simply the best.
Paid attendance: 15,025.
Like me on Sunday, my fifth consecutive game with the Mets, the 162nd game of 2001, my 38th and final time inside Shea for the year. The final day is a tradition with me. The final day was supposed to be September 23. Lots of supposed-to-be’s were thrown out the window in September. It was really late for a final regular-season game. It was October 7. It was cold. I wore my parka. The This Date in Mets History notes on the scoreboard all involved playoff games.
This wasn’t a playoff game. This was the string as played out by non-contenders. This was one of those DET-KC games Jason and I had rolled our eyes toward all season when the DiamondVision highlighted it, as in who could stand to watch or even care about that? That was what MON-NY was now.
I sat alone right up to first pitch, my companions all running late. Had Gary Cohen on in my ear and, as the color guard emerged for the national anthem, Gary said something he had never before said in twelve seasons behind the Mets mic:
Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States.
It was now George Bush in my ear, announcing the dropping of bombs and food on Afghanistan. We were, as expected, going to war. Not with the Braves. Not with the Phillies. Not even with the Yankees. But with the Taliban.
The battle is now joined on many fronts. We will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail. Peace and freedom will prevail. Thank you. May God continue to bless America.
Bush threw it back to Gary who reported Terry Jones took strike one and eventually grounded out to first.
Not a typical day at Shea. Well, typical in some respects.
It was notebook day for kids. As only 15,540 of any age showed up to end the season — and we were at war — you might have figured management might have dipped into its bulging boxes and generously handed out its surfeit of notebooks to one and all; there is nothing uniquely juvenile about a notebook; I jot, you jot, we all jot. But no, no notebook for you or you or you.
As it grew ever chillier, Jason was kind enough to round up hot chocolate for everybody. It was steamy and watery and vaguely chocolaty, and I’m sure it was three bucks for three drops, but it was not hot chocolate in any of the positive connotations usually associated with such. I haven’t had hot chocolate at Shea since.
“God Bless America” was performed during the seventh-inning stretch by the Mets, Mookie Wilson and Lenny Harris, allegedly musically inclined, leading the off-key chorus. It was a lovely gesture, fitting in nicely with all the Mets had done in a community-minded way since they bused home from Pittsburgh the second week of September. But boy, I said, I can’t wait to hear “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in 2002.
The Mets went down disinterestedly on the field. Newsday reported several Mets vets weren’t in the dugout when the game started. They were watching Bush’s speech on a clubhouse television. Piazza predicted it would be “a war where the enemy could be among us. We’ve got to look out for each other.”
I did my part by driving one of my friends home.
Motorphobe that I had become, I almost never drove to Shea Stadium anymore, but on that final Sunday I did. Laurie had innocently remarked she couldn’t picture me behind the wheel of a car so I was determined to show her my suburban side. After dropping her off in Forest Hills, I wound my way through my usual phalanx of secondary roads, from Queens to Nassau, forgetting the 5-0 loss and remembering the presidential proclamation. Gary Cohen ended Mets Extra with a reference to “the country at war,” which wasn’t nearly as comforting as “the Rockies downed the Padres 14-5.” I turned from Sportsradio 66 to Newsradio 88 and, in an instant, Desi Relaford dissolved into Donald Rumsfeld. Late summer and baseball and the Mets and their healing the city bit, as gratifying and sincere as it was, seemed years removed. I wished the Mets had overtaken the Braves. I wished Brian Jordan had stuck to football. I wished the Mets would be wearing those tribute caps of theirs in the playoffs. I wished the country could see the New York team that Peter Gammons praised in ESPN: The Magazine:
Years from now, the children and grandchildren of Leiter and Franco, Alfonzo and Piazza, Ventura and Zeile, will be proud that as New York rose from the ashes, their fathers and grandfathers — the 2001 New York Mets — were New York the way the policemen, firefighters and EMT workers were New York. And that is a far greater validation of their inner grace than any World Series ring.
But I understood those wishes weren’t coming true. At the end of a season extended a week into October for the worst reason imaginable, with the Mets — in the phraseology in which I had been speaking for weeks — six out with none to play, all I really wished now was for the 2001 season to be over.
And it was.